This is one of the most popular myths about Lean. Middle managers are dangerous people who stop any improvement initiative and lack strategic vision about operational excellence. They must be kept away from any Lean work at all costs or they will blur and corrupt Lean ideas and concepts and will destroy people’s morale… Is this true? Of course not. However, middle managers are special people who need special care when applying Lean. Let’s learn why.
According to Wikipedia, middle managers are:
Intermediate management of a hierarchical organization that is subordinate to the executive management and responsible for at least two lower levels of junior staff. Unlike the line management, middle management is considered to be a senior (or semi-executive) management position. Middle managers’ main duty is to implement company strategy in the most efficient way. Their duties include creating effective working environment, administrating the work process, making sure it is compliant with organization’s requirements, leading people and reporting to the highest level of management.
Let’s see what makes middle managers so special:
- They are the highest management position in the organization with tactical (“get things done”) responsibility.
- They are the lowest management position in the organization with strategic (“shape the future”) responsibility.
- They have the highest “authority vs. accountability” gap in the organization.
What happens when Lean comes to a new company? Remember that Lean initiatives start normally at the shop floor, which means:
- Operators, technicians and line management adopt Lean management ideas: they are encouraged to control their work, test ideas and remove functional barriers. They are empowered to become process owners.
- Middle managers definition of success changes from “telling people what to do” to “remove problems and develop people”.
- Executive managers still work and think according to classic management ideas.
During this process, middle managers might feel:
- They are losing power.
- Their job is not necessary anymore.
- The definition of job success is unclear and inconsistent across the organization.
- Their bosses don’t know what Lean is like and still request traditional “command and control” behaviours.
As a consequence, we create a middle manager sandwich:
When the environment at a Lean transition is like this for a middle manager, he/she can perfectly react with anger / fear / frustration and move back to classic management and sabotage, either actively (canceling changes, taking control) or passively (removing support) the Lean work.
What to do?
- Be aware of the middle manager’s special condition and look for symptoms of frustration (learn more here).
- Make sure middle managers are part of the Lean transition, feel recognized and participate in those important decisions that affect their work.
- Help executive managers support and empower their people, avoiding wrong behaviours like “command and control” or “abdication” (learn more here and here)
- Communicate continuously Lean concepts and ideas. They are not evident at all and can be easily misunderstood (learn more here)
“I hate you” logo from http://listsurge.com/top-10-ways-to-make-someone-hate-you/